Why Black TV reporters are now embracing their natural hair on-air: 'It's more important than ever to be seen and heard'

More Black newscasters are embracing their natural hair as conversations around racial injustice make way for on-air representation. (Photo: Twitter/Sia Nyorkor)

“For the first time in my career I’m wearing braids on air,” Kaci Jones, a 27-year-old Black female broadcast reporter and anchor who works for KCTV in Kansas City, Mo., wrote on Instagram on June 15. “I’m so happy to be a part of an industry wide shift challenging and refusing ‘beauty norms’ that stem from white supremacy.”

The photo posted to her Instagram account shows the young woman standing camera-ready rocking a braided hairstyle known and loved by Black women everywhere. As someone who works in news — an industry that often puts restrictions on the appearance of on-air reporters — Jones hadn’t gotten the chance to wear the style on-camera before.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always been expected to maintain a ‘professional image.’ But who defines professional? I’ve been told to be careful not to wear lipstick that could be distracting. But who defines distracting?” Jones tells Yahoo Life. “Because of the ambiguity, most of the industry defaults to lightly layered straight hair, a bold, solid-colored dress and a full face of makeup. Some people are specifically contractually bound to ask a manager before changing up anything about their appearance. We also have consultants who are hired to make suggestions about our clothes or hair based on what looks good to them on air.”

The Virginia native explains that she has been in the news business for more than five years and has worked in various cities across the country. At every job, she thought back to the advice she had gotten before applying to the positions.

“I’ve had mentors tell me it would be easier to get a job with straight hair than natural hair,” she says. “I still remember some of my classmates who didn’t listen and applied for jobs with natural hair and didn’t get any responses.”

Issues surrounding Black women and men wearing their hair naturally or in protective styles, like braided extensions, have permeated a number of industries, leading to Black professionals being fired from their jobs or barred from being hired. Grooming guidelines that discriminate against these styles have even been enforced at schools across the country.

Related Video: Zazie Beetz, Dascha Polanco discuss their natural hair journeys

For Black women in news, this issue is only heightened as a result of high standards of appearance placed on all on-air female reporters — something that Sia Nyorkor, a chapter director and board member for the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) has been subjected to throughout her 20-year career.

“We have image requirements. So, typically, the way you’re hired in is usually the way they’d like you to be on the air,” Nyorkor tells Yahoo Life. “Back in the day if I was hired with straight hair, it would be jarring if all of a sudden I pop up with braids or with curls one day. You’re supposed to remain consistent, that was what we were always taught in journalism school and that’s what the managers always told us. You have to be consistent, stick with one look.”

The nature of the requirement is discriminatory for those with natural hair who often switch up their styles in an effort to protect it. When Nyorkor did just that by having her hair braided before going to a tropical destination wedding, she was told to go back to her straight style when getting back to work.

“What’s going on with your hair? We like it the way it was before. Please put it back,” she recalls her bosses saying. “Most people know it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy to take out a braid style that took you five or six hours to do. You can’t just take it down overnight and go back to straight.”

The Emmy- and award-winning multimedia journalist and anchor for WOIO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Cleveland, explains that the station where she currently works is the first in her career that has allowed her to wear her hair natural on-air. The decision to do so was sparked by her experience at an NABJ convention in 2018.

“I wore my hair natural because I wasn’t looking for a job, to be honest with you,” Nyorkor says. “I came back and I said, you know what, I don’t want to put my hair away and I don’t want to straighten it. I just want to wear it the way it is. So, I just did it. I didn’t ask for permission, I just did it.”

Nyorkor calls the experience “a big turning point” both personally and professionally and references the messages she got in support of her look from viewers and managers. More importantly, she notes legislation that has been put in place that prohibits race-based hair discrimination.

“Things are really, really different now. Especially with legislation passing in so many states regarding the CROWN Act [which stands for ‘Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair’]. A lot of television stations, too, I think, no one wants to offend anyone,” she says. “Most of the managers now, at least in the bigger cities, they’re letting people be themselves. No one wants that discrimination lawsuit. ... Who would want to work for a company that doesn’t allow you to be your most natural self, your most authentic self?”

She re-emphasizes that the move toward embracing natural hair on-air is a “big deal” because all on-air reporters used to look the same. Still, when Black women appear to be breaking the mold, it attracts viral attention.

This was the case for AJ Walker, who wore her hair braided on air for the first time in March 2019 after working in the industry for a decade. She now tells Yahoo Life that since making that change, she hasn’t looked back.

AJ Walker wore her hair straight for on-air appearances until March 2019. (Photo: AJ Walker)

“I never anticipated that my story would have such an impact on other African American on-air talent. But so many of them reached out to me after my story and they had talked with their news stations and got permission to wear braids. This meant a lot to me. It felt good to make an impact and change the way people see African Americans,” Walker explains. “I felt like a veil has been lifted from our faces.”

Even Walker’s white colleagues hadn’t understood the discrimination that Black women were facing in newsrooms until her story received so much attention.

“[They] had no idea that we were silently being suppressed until my braids sparked this conversation,” she says.

Taylor Bishop, a morning news anchor and reporter at WDEF-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn., similarly says that making the decision to wear her hair in braids at work opened up conversations about discrimination in the workplace.

“Conversations of what other things I felt uncomfortable about at work and how to express my feelings and emotions better with those in management positions,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Since then, I try to change my style every month to showcase the versatility that Black hair possesses.”

Bishop has also made it a mission to integrate stories about the Black community and the history of natural hair into her reporting.

“Over these past few weeks, I think it’s more important than ever to be seen and heard in our positions,” Bishop says, referring to heightened conversations about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to social media, where photos of Black women reporting the news while rocking their natural hair have been getting viral attention, this increased representation is well-received.

“About three weeks ago on the weekend, three African American news anchors, we all wore our hair natural on Saturday morning. I looked up at the TV monitors and we were all wearing our natural curls. I posted a picture just for fun, like, ‘Hey, look, I think we’re making history,’ ” Nyorkor says. “That thing went viral.”

Since following the lead of so many other Black women reporters, Jones has also received praise from viewers and colleagues at her CBS affiliate station. Now, she hopes that the representation of diverse faces and perspectives becomes a permanent standard in television news.

“It’s time for the industry to do a better job of matching the demographics of the newsroom with the demographics of the communities we serve,” Jones says. “I won’t always wear my hair in braids, sometimes I might switch it up and straighten it again, or I might wear my natural curls. No matter what I do with my hair, I’ll always focus on becoming a better journalist every day. I hope people can look at me and so many other women making the switch and remember braids and curly hair are professional.”

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